Featured Essays

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Era of TV Talent Competitions – One Winner, Many Fading Stars

The Era of TV Talent Competitions - One Winner, Many Fading Stars

Nobody can stop the American Idol juggernaut.

When the notorious judge Simon Cowell announced his departure in 2010, many dissenters thought this would finally spell the doom for American Idol.  Instead, the talent show remains prominent in its viewership entering into the tenth season.  Currently the most watched program on TV, this musical competition generates over twenty million viewers each week, while completely abolishing the competition in televised ratings.  Even if American Idol was long past its prime, there were no signs of fatigue or declining popularity as shown in the numbers.  It remains a top performing television program throughout the past ten years.

In fact, the format of a televised talent show seems to be regurgitating in recent marketability.  This April will see the debut of The Voice, yet another music competition to hit the North American broadcasts.  The show stands out with some star-studded names in its judging panel, such as Adam Levine and Christina Aguilera, along with country singer Blake Shelton, music producer Cee Lo Green, and late-night television personality Carson Daly as the host.  Later in September, Simon Cowell is back on television, and he will be introducing X-Factor to the U.S. with an astounding $5 million cash prize.  As such, if the current American Idol series leaves you unsatisfied, keep in mind there are plenty of similar alternatives within the upcoming television season.

The talent shows may be watched by many during the time of airing, but the popularity does not sustain after the competition is over.  More often than not, the winner fades into obscurity once the spotlight is taken away and the fifteen minutes of fame are gone forever.  This trend is increasingly true with the recent Idol champions, as they achieve less and less success in the music industry.  Take the latest winner, Lee DeWyze, had embarrassingly low sales for his debut album.  To put it into perspective, he was outsold by Rebecca Black of Friday notoriety!  Even less could be spoken about those who failed to win the ultimate title, other than a few rare and unusual exceptions with extraordinary circumstances.

If these talent shows do not produce a marketable and successful winner, does this not undermine the overall purpose of the competition?  And if so, why are these programs still so popular in the demand and supply markets?  This article will analyze the appeal of these televised talent competitions, and explore the aftermath of the participants after their fifteen minutes of fame are over.

What happens to the many fading stars in the boulevard of broken dreams?


The origin of the televised talent shows emerged in popular culture decades ago.  They have long existed in the form of beauty pageants like Miss America and Miss USA, although the measure of "talent" in these instances is rather debatable.  Despite its success, American Idol is not the first of its kind in television broadcasting.  The pioneer of the genre is Star Search, a family-friendly talent competition that ran for twelve years from 1983 to 1995.  It was used as a starting platform for comedians like Drew Carey and Ray Romano, as well as singers like LeAnn Rimes and Christina Aguilera.  In the latter's case, Aguilera was just ten years old while competing in 1990, but she only ended as the runner-up.  Although Star Search fostered the start of several famous celebrities today, and gave them a well-publicized vehicle to launch their careers, nobody truly attained instant and long-lasting success from the competition.

By comparison, American Idol had more of a glamorous success record with its first winner, Kelly Clarkson, back in the summer of 2002.  She would proceed to sell millions of pop and rock albums over the next ten years.  Part of her success is attributed to her warm girl-next-door persona, because Clarkson started out as an ordinary everywoman with almost no formal music training beforehand.  As a result, the viewers watched her raw talent grow during the course of the competition.  The premise of American Idol is not only to discover talented individuals and watch their weekly performances on stage.  The main appeal is the notion that a potential star can be nurtured by the American public, through their votes and fan support, as the winner eventually evolves into a nationwide pop culture icon.


Nowadays, most of the talent competitions follow the same general format.  They televise the performances, and then rely heavily on a voting system to determine which singer is eliminated from the competition each week.  In American Idol, the eliminations continue until it culminates to an epic finale where the winner is crowned.  There are some slight variations among the other series, but the differences are never too drastic.  The selling point of The Voice is that it focuses on pure talent, such as hosting "blind" auditions without seeing the singers beforehand.  Likewise, X-Factor has the gimmick where the judges compete against each other as they mentor the singers individually.  In the end, these shows will produce one winner per series, with the prospect of breakout success and high record sales in the actual music industry.

These talent shows are not just restricted to the singing genre.  Dance competitions like Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance follow the same format and are also quite popular among viewers.  In general, most reality television programs can be described as a glorified talent show, where only the most talented of the candidates will end up with the prize.  Whether the contestants compete for a modelling contract in America's Next Model or a fashion editorial in Project Runway, the competitive aspect is an essential component of the reality TV genre.  It is especially an intriguing notion in music talent shows like Idol, since the verdict is often determined by the number of votes.  As such, the winner may not always correspond with the most talented, as long as they are the most popular in that particular given week.

In the above programs, all of the contestants are evaluated by the expert judging panel after their performances each week.  Some shows let the judges determine the final verdict of the competition, while others use an interactive voting system to eliminate the least popular contestant.  Voting is the preferred method, as it allows viewers to become engaged with the outcome, and it also adds a more authentic feel to the procedures.  Furthermore, there is a sense of gratification in voting to save someone from elimination, since your favourite contestant could potentially survive and perform on the show for another week, thus giving them more exposure on the program.  Voting also plays to the nurturing aspect of talent shows, because every vote to save contributes to the growth, journey, and career prospects of that particular contestant.

Voting is an interesting concept since it may lead to some unpredictable and even undeserving results.  It takes the basic foundation of a talent show and turn the format into a popularity contest instead.  Yet, this is not purely a democratic vote, as most competitions allow the public to vote multiple times for their favourite contestants.  Thus, a small but devoted fan base can possibly triumph  over the more widely popular candidates.  In essence, the votes indicate the level of passion from the fans, rather than serve as an accurate measure of talent or popularity.  As such, this faulty system is sometimes disputed by the voters, especially when it leads to surprising eliminations.

The voting process also raises another common predicament in televised talent competitions - not everyone is born with equal talent, and not everyone can be the winner.  That much is obvious, since winners and losers are the core components of a competition after all, but what happens to the eliminated contestants after their weekly stint was cut short?  For many, their newfound fame is as fleeting as it was welcoming.  If even the winners struggle to grasp commercial success upon victory, then the losers have even less of a chance to make it big in the music industry upon their losses.  Losing a talent competition leaves behind a long trail of broken dreams and lost aspirations, as if the public has told the performers that they are simply not talented enough to warrant their affection.

There are some exceptions of course, such as the Oscar winner and American Idol alumni Jennifer Hudson, who was eliminated in 7th place during her season.  She is an undeniably talented performer, and rightfully granted an Academy award for her performance in Dreamgirls, yet the American public failed to acknowledge her talent during her stint on American Idol.  This brings up yet another problem with the mechanism of these talent shows: if the most talented is not the most successful, then what is the point in winning these competitions anyway?  Therefore, one can argue that victory might not even be the main objective of these televised talent shows, because winning is not necessarily the equivalent to success.  It is more important to prolong a contestant's stay and their media exposure during the competition, because this increases their probability of receiving more opportunities.  Even so, Hudson had been quoted in noting that Idol played very little influence to getting her award-winning role on Dreamgirls, such that the past experience was almost irrelevant to her current success.


For now, it is difficult to predict how The Voice and X-Factor will resonate with viewers compared to the ratings juggernaut American Idol.  These new programs can possibly eclipse the success of its predecessor, or fall by the sidelines like many other copycat replicates in the past.  It all comes down to the bottom line, whether the talent show is considered profitable for the broadcaster or not.  Reality TV shows are cheap to produce unlike scripted programming, and the pool of aspiring stars is always wide open, so the risk of  a show's failure is minimal in proportion to the likelihood of its success.  These talent shows are not so much a platform for undiscovered stars, as much as it is an economic vehicle for the producers.  So what if the winners are not successful?  So what if their albums are flops in sales? So what if they are dropped by their promised record labels shortly after?  The question here is literally so what?

Even if the winners are not profitable, the producers can always bank on the next season or the next series of the talent competition.  They are not just limited to just one winner.  There can be multiple Idols, multiple Voices, and multiple Stars.  As soon as the public grows tired of the current champion, they can quickly move on to the next big thing, leaving behind a fading star who will be nothing more than a long forgotten distant memory.

1 comment:

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